Columbus Square's Mi Li Cafe specializes in Vietnamese pho and banh mi
When I was four, my dad and I lived off of Dublin-Granville Road in the apartments behind Otani and close to what used to be the Elephant Bar (and is now, like most interesting Columbus landmarks, a Walgreens).
In 30 years, the North Side has seen more changes than I can count. It started early. One of the first losses was a buffet in the Columbus Square shopping center, forever locked in my mind as "Smorgasboard" because that's how my dad once described it to me.
Not long after, the Big Bear shut its doors, as did our Zantigo, a Mexican chain beloved for their addictive chilitos. No matter what my dad said, even five-year-old (wailing) me knew the truth: Taco Bell was not as good as Zantigo.
As an adult, I can see that even though many chains cleared out, the area is better for it-restaurants and markets run by owners from all over the world fill the void. One of them is Mi Li Cafe, nestled in Columbus Square.
I'm not alone in my love for this brightly colored Vietnamese restaurant. It gets constant foot traffic from regulars who generally order the restaurant's specialties: pho tai (a noodle soup) and banh mi thit nuong (a sandwich that marries Vietnamese flavors with the French standbys of mayonnaise and baguette).
I first encountered Mi Li through a friend who dragged me on a summer-long exploration of the city's best phos. The Vietnamese wonder soup is a comfort food (perfect for both colds and the effects of over-indulgence) that isn't completely terrible for you.
Pho gets its distinctive, deep flavor from stock slow-simmered with toasted spices, charred onion and ginger and-sorry, vegetarians-marrow from beef bones. Bowls are filled with rice noodles, and pho becomes an interactive experience when diners customize their soup with the accompanying limes, green onions, thinly sliced white onions, jalapenos, bean sprouts and bitter greens or basil. Sriracha and hoisin, for heat and sweetness, sit on every table.
When assembled, this choose-your-own-adventure dish celebrates opposites in texture and temperature: as the cool crunch of bean sprouts hit the hot and steamy broth, magic happens.
I love the pho, but Mi Li's banh mi is my favorite find, especially on hot days. Grilled pork, pat, pickled carrots, cilantro, jalapenos and cucumber mingle together on a freshly baked baguette coated with mayonnaise. (I'm a sucker for mayo on hot bread.)
Crispy on the outside and warm on the inside, the bread is what makes this sandwich. Their secret: a standing order from the bakery at the Andersons General Store.
On a recent visit, my fortune cookie yielded the words, "Sometimes even love shows a rerun." I have no idea what this means. But if we're talking about 161-a love for the 2011 incarnation along with fond memories of what it used to be-I'm in.
Jill Moorhead blogs about food at itinerantfoodies.com
Mi Li Cafe
5858 Emporium Sq., North Side
10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday,
10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday